THEY came together from all across Cambodia and hardly uttered a word.
Brilliantly adorned in their traditional dress and headgear, delegates from the nation's
narrow spectrum of minorities - ethnic-Chams, Chinese, Khmer Loeu, Vietnamese, and
many more - converged on Phnom Penh last week for the National Symposium on Ethnic
Groups in Cambodia and National Multicultural Awareness Day.
During the two-day conference, organized by the Center for Advanced Study (CAS) and
sponsored, in part, by UNICEF, UNDP, and UNFPA, when they were not entertaining with
their folkloric song and dance, they largely sat in silence, listening to others
tell them about their place in the new Cambodia.
The politicians and international experts were out in force, crowding the podium
at which the last word was meant to be reserved for representatives from the minority
Each panelist was accorded no more than 15 minutes speaking time, but, given the
lengthy remarks made by panelists who preceded minority representatives to the podium,
they had to compress their speeches into a few minutes.
"These people were invited to participate in the discussions," said Dr
Pen Dareth, vice-president of CAS, responding to criticism about why the voices of
Cambodia's ten percent minority population had barely been heard.
"I don't know why, but some ethnic representatives did not want to go on-stage,"
he added. "I tried to convince them many times to do so, but some wanted to
just listen and not deliver speeches."
Politicians of all colors seemed to take the interests of those who have been relegated
to the margins of Cambodian society at heart, but in their speeches most of them
sidestepped the issue of discrimination or seemed less than tactful.
In his keynote address, Chea Sim, CPP chairman of the National Assembly, told his
audience that "Cambodia is a multi-cultural land, abounded by flexibility, with
no discrimination on race, color, sex, religious belief, nationality or wealth."
Tourism Minister Veng Sereyvuth said he recognizied the Chams and Chinese as legitimate
minorities, but omitted ethnic-Vietnamese from his list. He echoed the claim that
Cambodia was free of racial prejudice.
He also pitched the idea that the hill-tribes of the northeast would fit very nicely
into Cambodia's thriving eco-tourism industry.
"Ethnic minorities are attractive to tourists," he said, pointing to a
throng of Chams who were seated before him as "very fine products for tourism."
Speaking on whether it is preferable for ethnic minorities to assimilate into the
culture of the majority or to preserve their unique identity, Son Soubert, the BLDP
vice-chairman of the National Assembly, made a broad distinction between "ethnic
groups" who have been on the land over centuries and "immigrants"
who he said posed a threat to them.
Soubert cited as examples the experiences in America and Australia, where European
settlers pushed out the indigenes, by exterminating them by the thousands, or by
confining them to well-demarcated reservations located far from the outposts of White
He added that Cambodians must preserve their culture from Western influences such
as "Coca-Cola, computer and the fast food."
Soubert launched an appeal to "the Khmers", warning them about selling
the soul of Cambodia for the sake of profits from sales of stones and artifacts.
Soubert later told the Post that the symposium happened too late to impact on the
debate of the draft Nationality law.
The Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, noted CAS's Dareth, does not extend
the rights of "Khmer" citizenship to ethnic-Vietnamese or ethnic-Chinese
Cambodians, who he said are treated as "second-class citizens".
"Cambodian society does not want to acknowledge that there are these problems,
because the majority Khmers say that everything is okay, there is no discrimination,"
Dareth added: "Future government policies cannot ignore the existence of one
million people. Something has to be done for them. There have to be policies and
programs for minorities. At present, the government does not have such a program
for minorities. The government is not aware of their social and cultural situation,
they do not know their needs and problems."
Hence, the symposium's final recommendation that a Cambodian Ethnic Commission be
established to lobby the government over its policies affecting minorities.
Such a consultative body, Dareth said, could be comprised of three government officials
- one each from the Ministries of Culture, Religion, and Interior - two MPs, and
one representative from each of Cambodia's minorities.